Now for some more substance: Marx, atheism and faith

While Marx admitted that he had a particular dislike of Christianity – ‘so specific is my aversion to Christianity,’ he wrote to Lasalle – and even though he is guilty of occasional moments of crass materialism, he also argued that atheism is not a prerequisite for socialism.

One reason was theoretical, for as Marx points out already in his response to Bruno Bauer’s program to abolish religion, atheism is ‘the last stage of theism, the negative recognition of God’. In other words, atheism is really a theological position; one needs a God whose existence can be denied. He goes one step further in an astute couple of sentences in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. He begins with this very same argument – atheism is theological since it is a negation of God in order to focus on the existence of human beings (Feuerbach did as much). But then Marx argues that we need to move beyond the opposition of theism and atheism: ‘Atheism … has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in need of such a mediation … Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion’. Abolition here is of course Aufhebung: socialism is the sublation, preservation and lifting to another level of religion. One does not need atheism as a basis for socialism; rather, it is sublated by socialism. Or as Marx put it more prosaically and somewhat quaintly in an interview with the Chicago Tribune:

‘You and your followers, Dr. Marx, have been credited with all sorts of incendiary speeches against religion. Of course you would like to see the whole system destroyed, root and branch’.
‘We know’, he replied after a moment’s hesitation, ‘that violent measures against religion are nonsense; but this is an opinion: as Socialism grows, religion will disappear’.

Another reason for distinguishing between atheism and socialism was tactical. On one side Bakunin and the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. Marx comments dryly, ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’ On the other side there were plenty of accusations that the International was precisely as Bakunin had wanted. I do not mean the scaremongers of state repression, but former comrades such as Jules Favre and Mazzini, who stated that the International wanted to make atheism compulsory. Engels repeatedly points out that atheism is not part of the socialist program. In a similar vein Marx, in his interview with The World, replies to the question,

‘And as to religion?’
On that point I cannot speak in the name of the society. I myself am an atheist. It is startling, no doubt, to hear such an avowal in England, but there is some comfort in the thought that it need not be made in a whisper in either Germany or France.

Does this mean that the communist movement took the position of freedom of conscience for its members? Here Marx is ambivalent. In his Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction he argues that religion is the inviolable ‘subjective frame of mind’, at least as far as religion itself in concerned. It is part of a longer argument against religious censorship by the state, suggesting that the state censor usurps God’s sole role as judge of the heart. The reasons why such an argument was made in the context of censorship are not difficult to determine – the preservation of at least some domain that is free from censorship (the ‘kingdom within’), as well as the characteristic inversion whereby the censor turns out to be the one guilty of defamatory and offensive judgement.

It is of course a position that is all too common today: religion is a private matter that is no-one else’s business. My initial reaction is that he merely buys into the privatisation of religious commitment that is by now almost universal. Religion ceases to have any communal or social presence: all that counts is one’s relationship with one’s God. So we find one politician after another responding to the latest social comment from church, synagogue or mosque: stop seeking the media spotlight and mind your own business, which is the cultivation of souls and religious experience. Is this not a deeply liberal position in which the individual is sacrosanct? We can at least account for Marx’s argument by pointing out that it comes from an early text before he had taken up communism.

Later on, be blasts the very idea of freedom of conscience as a tired old liberal catchword. For example in Critique of the Gotha Programme he writes that what freedom of conscience should mean is that ‘everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in’. He goes on to state that it actually means the toleration of only certain types of religion, which is nothing less than ‘unfreedom of conscience’. And it certainly doesn’t include the freedom to be liberated from religion itself.

There is actually more here than at first seems to be the case. Marx does appear to dismiss the whole idea of freedom of conscience as an irredeemable liberal position, but then he takes another step. This position is actually not freedom of conscience at all, for if it was then one should be able to hold whatever religion one wants or indeed dispense with the witchery of religion completely. It is as if he is saying, you want freedom of conscience, then here it is … in full!

In a situation in which the thought police of Germany persecuted any one who opposed state power and the church, Marx must be consistent and argue that the socialists should not exercise the same type of censorship. Even more, a fully collective program does not seek to impose the will of either the one or the many over the other. What we end up with is a dialectical point: rather than throwing out the baby of freedom of conscience with the bathwater of liberal ideology, a fully collective program will enable the full realisation of freedom of conscience. And that applies as much to religious belief as to anything else.


2 thoughts on “Now for some more substance: Marx, atheism and faith

  1. Great blog and great piece on Marx. I am particularly interested in the organizational implications of this question, suggested by the policies of the 1st International. What role should religion play in revolutionary organizations? Should revolutionary groups be open to the participation of religious members? I agree with you that Marx seems to be advocating a dialectical transformation: by attacking bourgeois “freedom of religion” he is arguing for full freedom of religion in the new society. How can revolutionary organizations today prefigure this full freedom? The Irish anarcho-socialist James Connolloy sheds some light on this… he argues for a freedom of religious practice in the context of socialist struggle in a way that seems to mirror your reading of Marx. I just wrote about that here:, and also posted your article. I also just started your piece on Rosa Luxemburg and I’m looking forward to finishing it. Can you recommend any other revolutionary thinkers who’ve argued for the full participation of religious people in their organizations? My friends and I are hoping to explore this question in the upcoming months on our site

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